From his home in Huntington Beach, lead singer Matt Caughthran spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about returning to the Bronx after four years in Mexico, interrogation techniques at Knott's Berry Farm and why the band seemed a bit doomed from the beginning.
So you're feeling pretty good about the new album?
Yeah man, I'm stoked on it. All you can hope for, at the end of the day, is just be connected with what you're doing, you know? At the end of Bronx III, we needed to take a little break from the band because we kind of hit a wall creatively and didn't really know where to take the band and didn't know where it was going. It's a strange feeling when you come across something that brought so much freedom into your life - the punk rock attitude, the punk rock shows and punk rock music - and all of a sudden you feel like [you] hit something that's not the creative abyss that you believed it to be. So it kind of stung a bit and we were like, "We've got to do something fucking different" and that's where (Mariachi) El Bronx came from.
It was such a gift to give the Bronx a break, to just sharpen our skills somewhere else for a little while and stay creatively charged and stay motivated and stay inspired and continue to make music and just kind of ready ourselves for when we were done playing mariachi music we'd come back and write and Bronx IV.
[Laughs.] It's cool man, we came back from a crazy, strange trip with the El Bronx thing into a world, into a band that we love and getting to write records that we wanted to write and were inspired to write and were connected to. You never want make records just for the sake of making records. You don't want to get to a point where you're just showing up for work and you don't give a shit about what you're doing. So I'm stoked on the record - I love it.
Explain the creative wall you hit after the third record.
You just feel like you're spinning your wheels. Don't get me wrong, I really liked the third record, but where we were at as a band, we didn't have too many actual songs and just taking them apart and literally mashing them together. Sometimes it came out cool and sometimes it didn't. We've [made] some songs that are great and we've made songs that aren't so great that way, and we wanted to make a different record this time around. We wanted to simplify things and not over-analyze things and just concentrate on almost making a Ramones-style record; just simplifying our sound and just having fun.
It sounds like El Bronx was almost like therapy for the band.
Well I think therapy might be too emo of a word. [Laughs.] It's not like we were sitting in a room, crying, saying "Oh, the world is over" and "Oh, poor us and our punk band." It wasn't like that - it wasn't that dramatic. Like, I want to be part of something big, I want to be part of something massive and I want to make the best music I can on this earth while I'm alive and I want to make it with my friends. So when something that's supposed to be unlimited starts to become limiting, it drives you up the fucking wall. So that's what the El Bronx thing was all about - about breaking through walls and such. [Pauses.] You never would have thought that mariachi music would have done that and it's a weird way of going about it, but it worked for us and ended up saving things in a lot of ways.
As an artist, what did you learn with El Bronx?
I'm going to try to say this without sounding like an asshole, but I think you can spend so much time in bands wondering, especially in punk bands because a majority of us don't have big radio hits or having the label throwing us fucking cash to survive. So you spend so much time in the purgatory of "Am I going to make it? Am I going to do this for the rest of my life? Where's the next check coming from?" - the window's-always-closing kind of mentality. You're always scared shitless of when this is going to end. With El Bronx, the one thing that it taught us is that, or taught me, is that it finally answered those questions: Are you supposed to be in a band? Are you supposed to be an artist? Or are you supposed to be fucking working at Ralph's stocking groceries? It finally solidified our existence as creative people - it finally gave us an end where we could trust our gut and know that we have some sort of a valid existence in music. Now, it's all about how far can we take this and to not take it for granted to make as much music as we possibly can - just go for it.
Now, I feel like we've crossed over as band and this is what we're going to do for the rest of our lives and that question has finally been answered. I don't think about it anymore and it's a huge weight off my shoulders creatively. This is it, this is my life and this is how it's going to go from here until I'm done.
Did it ever get hot performing in those charro suits?
Fuck yes, dude. They smell and we'd just throw them in a bag when we were done playing and they'd fucking stink, man.
[Laughs.] With the new album, is there a central theme or inspiration running throughout the songs?
I think there's a lot of reflection in the record - especially after coming back to the Bronx for the first time in five years. And there's also the fact that we made Bronx IV after a decade in the band, so there's all that stuff - you kind of couldn't help but look back and put yourself in a reflective state of mind. Whether it was how the world was different from when we started, or how I was different or how music's different or how the band's different.
There's also a funny sense of duality on the record too. There's line in the first song of the record, "The Unholy Hand," that goes "Are you the antichrist or the Holy Ghost?" And that line was born out of the duality of Bronx and El Bronx and how I woke up one day we were at a point where we were playing in one band one day and the other band the next day and you don't really know who you are. I guess I wrote it thinking that the Bronx is the antichrist and El Bronx is the Holy Ghost. There's a lot of that throughout the record - a kind of reality of duality sort-of thing.
But with that duality, that shift in sound, do you still consider Mariachi El Bronx punk rock?
Yeah, I think the Bronx is punk rock in sound and El Bronx is punk rock in idea - that's the way I look at it.
What's the song "Ribcage" about?
"Ribcage" is using a police interrogation as a metaphor for people just breaking down and wanting to do things their way.
Did any personal experiences inspire that metaphor?
Not really. But I've been interrogated about three or four times in my life. The main time was when I stole 60 dollars for band practice when I worked at Knott's Berry Farm when I was 17 - I took it out of the cash register. And they fired me over it but before they fired me, they interrogated me for fucking like two hours. It was the real deal too - there was a light in my face they were like, "Did you take the money?" Finally, I cracked and told them I stole the money and then I got fired.
So 10 years since the Bronx got together and since El Bronx, has the punk rock idea changed for you at all?
Not really. It's just evolved more for me - and I think it does for everybody - as you get older. It just gets bigger; it gets bigger in ideals. It's not about banging your head against the wall anymore - it's about maintaining a work ethic and the ideals to live a life that is inspired and that is outside of the norm, by any means necessary. It's about not giving in more than anything. In my heart and in my mind, I feel a certain way about life and to go against that would be death. It's punk rock that keeps me on that line and in that vein - it's something that's in my DNA.
Is not naming your albums part of that philosophy? Of going against the norm?
Kind of. I wish it was that romantic and there's a little bit of that in there. There's three sides to that story. Part of it is that we don't want to name the records and do something different. The other part is Joby (Ford, guitarist) is an awesome graphic designer and it's kind of nice having the artwork separate the records. The other part is that you have a lot of bands like Bad Religion or something like that where the title of the record is important. In our band, the Bronx, it's not. It doesn't matter what the fuck our record's called, if it's not good then it's not good so we put emphasis on the songs. And another other part is that we're such fucking ding-dongs and retards that to actually come to a point where all five of us agreed on what the record would be called, like this magical statement or a lyric or a haiku, it would fucking take forever.
In your first year and a half as a band, you guys experienced a couple of pretty bad accidents. Did it feel like the Bronx was a bit doomed at first?
Yeah, we had some pretty shitty luck. It's sad to say, but as a touring band it's almost like a rite of passage to get in a van crash. You just hope nothing terrible happens. Like that first one, man, I was driving and we were on a two-lane highway and this semi truck next to us started to veer towards us and I over-corrected. The van flipped, three or four times maybe, and while we were flipping I saw Joby's head about to smash into the window and I grabbed his shirt and pulled him away from the window as we were rolling and we all got out of there pretty much scratch-free - it was crazy. The second time, we were parked across the street at like a church or Walmart or something and some drunk driver took a turn wrong, went up a grass median, launched the BMW on top of our van and smashed the whole van in while our bass player was sleeping inside of it. We were at this house party across the street and we heard the whole thing and our bass player comes running into the party, covered in glass and he was like, "Oh my god!" [Laughs.] It was crazy - absolutely crazy.
There's two ways to look at it. You can feel indestructible because you survived it. But what we got out of it was we are not fucking indestructible because at that point, you're young, you're traveling around the world, playing music, just top of the food chain - so stoked on life - and when something like that happens, it just knocks you right back down to reality and you realize that any second it could be all over. It becomes about enjoying what you got and not taking it for granted and realizing that life is an awesome thing and to make the most of it.
Do you think the tides have changed for the band?
Yeah I think so, I think we're doing alright. Like, life comes and goes. It can kick your ass or kiss you on the cheek, but right now things are good so I'm stoked.
In 20 years, which band do you want to be remembered for: the Bronx or Mariachi El Bronx?
Fuck man, both. It's all a big body of work. I know we're not the most amazing band on the planet or anything, but we're trying to do our part to shake shit up and leave our mark on music. It's the thought process behind this band that I want people to remember - always trying to steer towards the uncomfortable and towards what's kind of foreign. It's about always trying to improve yourself creatively. Whether that's mariachi music or punk music or whatever comes down the road for us next, it all depends on what people will remember.